About twenty pickups were parked haphazardly on the meager grass and red dirt that circled the solitary farm house. Small clusters of the clan were gathered here and there outside, talking about the need for rain, the latest OU and OSU standoff, and anything else that might divert their minds from the real reason they were gathered there. Closing my car door, I took a deep breath and said a prayer none of them would take a swing at me. Once moving, I didn't stop. Past the groups who fell silent as I strode by. Past the glaring faces of those in the kitchen. Past the portraits of several generations in the hallway. Into her room. It was standing room only. I eased past the onlookers and knelt beside her. No one spoke, or tried to stop me. She turned her half-closed eyes toward me and attempted a smile. Opening my prayer book, I read the dying matriarch words of life from her Lord. I spoke of the resurrection. I prayed the 23rd psalm, a petition for her comfort and hope, pronounced the Aaronic benediction over her. Then I stood, stepped back, and walked away. Hard decisions almost always have hard consequences, whatever your vocation may be. Almost a year earlier, I was forced to make a hard decision that concerned a member of this particular family. The ripple effect of anger and animosity rapidly rippled into a tidal wave. For if you want to see people get downright mean and ugly, oftentimes the church is the best place to look. Nothing like Christianity to bring out the worst in people.
Just when things didn’t seem they could go any further south, of course, they did. While I was visiting this dear woman in the hospital, I prayed for her renewed health, concluding by asking that, if our Lord should take her to himself, she might fall asleep in Jesus. There was a nurse in the room at the time, tending to something, evidently eavesdropping with flawed ears. For, after I left, she took it upon herself to report to the woman’s daughter, “If I were you, I’d be very upset with that pastor, because I just heard him pray that your mother would die!” Later, after receiving a tongue-lashing over the phone from this daughter, I attempted to explain what I had really prayed, but, as you might guess, my words were so much wasted breath. For as far as the family was concerned, I was guilty until proven even more guilty of something else.
A few years after all this happened, when I was a seminary professor, a buddy of mine asked me what was most different now that I was no longer serving as pastor of a congregation. Almost unconsciously, the answer came to my lips: “I’m no longer afraid.” I was afraid when I made the decision that turned this large family against me. I was afraid that day when I pulled up outside the farm house. I was afraid when I later preached at the matriarch’s funeral. I feared for my safety, for my job, for my own family’s welfare. I feared rejection, hatred, failure, the cold shoulder of those whom I only wanted to serve faithfully. And I feared God. I feared the day when I should appear before him to give an account of myself and my ministry. That fear was crippling at times, but at other times it was my salvation. It forced me to act when I wanted to twiddle my thumbs. It compelled me to confront the impenitent, to comfort the sorrowing, to say what needed to be said, no matter what the consequences. Above all, it kept me vigilant.
But when I was no longer afraid, something else took the helm: complacency. And complacency flirted with conceit. And together this couple bred arrogance. And arrogance, when full grown, warred against itself with self-inflicted wounds that seemed replete with pleasure at the moment, but ended only in a slow and painful death.
I suppose it is true, at times, that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” But there are other times when the lack of fear should be our greatest fear. For if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the lack of that fear produces a fool in the end. How happy and easy a life would be in which all motivations were sweetness and light. But for this recalcitrant, egocentric man, life didn't pan out that way. Thy rod and Thy staff, they combat me, prodding me onward or yanking me back. But in the end, if that's what it takes to bring me to the table Thou hast prepared for me in the presence of mine enemies, instead of me ending up food on my enemies' table, then so be it.